The Justice Theater Project’s 2015-16 season opener, A Lesson Before Dying, directed by Deb Royals, is powerful, poignant, and well-executed (pun intended. The acting is simply superb!
Set in Louisiana in the 1940s, Romulus Linney’s play is based on Ernest J. Gaines’ 1993 novel, which tells the final chapter in the life of a man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although clearly innocent, Jefferson has been found guilty of murder and has been sentenced to death.
In an attempt to save Jefferson’s life, his public defender lawyer has likened him to a hog: “I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this [man].” The ploy only succeeds in robbing Jefferson of his humanity, effectively killing him long before the actual execution.
Jefferson’s godmother appeals to the teacher at the plantation school to teach Jefferson to “die like a man.” We are present as the teacher, the preacher, and the godmother visit the shackled Jefferson in a storeroom in the courthouse. We also follow moments of the teacher’s life outside of the prison visits. Before Jefferson dies, there is a lesson for him to learn. However, he is not the only character in the play to learn a lesson.
Rhetta Green is a joy to watch as Jefferson’s godmother Emma Glenn. While it is tragic that this character apparently “knows her place,” it is uplifting to see her use every means at her disposal to accomplish her goal of helping Jefferson. Green infuses her character with grace, faith, and dignity. Persuasive to the point of being overwhelming, this character is feisty yet respectful. Even when the character is silent, Green’s performance constantly speaks to the audience.
Gil Faison is captivating as the defeated-and-depressed Jefferson. We can feel his despair and his bitterness from the onset. The changes in this character are subtly effected — Faison very realistically portrays this metamorphosis. Do not be surprised if he brings you to tears multiple times.
Joseph Callender gives us a Grant Wiggins who is seriously vulnerable yet a “tower of strength” when needed. Wiggins is at first not interested in this particular role of teacher that has been foisted upon him. In fact, he questions his role as teacher in the local school as well.
Connie McCoy Rogers plays Wiggins’ love interest Vivian Baptiste. Also a teacher, Vivian supports, influences, and even threatens Wiggins as he learns his lesson before Jefferson’s dying. The chemistry between these characters in their difficult situations is quite evident.
Sean Wellington plays Paul Bonin, the deputy sheriff who is tasked with overseeing the interactions between Jefferson and the others. In every possible way, Wellington fits the part. While peripheral to the action, this character also learns a lesson … and manages to teach one, too.
Juan Isler portrays an earnest Rev. Moses Ambrose, intent on saving Jefferson’s soul and at odds with Wiggins over how to proceed. Director Deb Royals’ choices of blocking emphasize their differences. We are also treated to Isler’s vocal skills.
Michael Lester gives us a “1940s Southern sheriff” — Sam Guidry — who is everything we would expect from the role. We were left wondering whether or not Guidry learns a lesson, and we suspect that that was intentional.
The set, designed by Deb Royals and Jeffrey Nugent, uses multiple levels to create the storeroom, a classroom, a restaurant, etc. Sometimes, we are actually members of the student body as Wiggins addresses his class.
Other technical triumphs include the choice of period blues songs playing between scenes and the changes in lighting as scenes and moods change. There is an electric-chair effect that is chilling while not overwhelming. Another excellent choice.
Like all of JTP’s productions, this play invites the audience to consider and to discuss key social issues. The death penalty, race relations, education, individual responsibility, basic human dignity — we are offered a lesson on a wide gamut of issues.
Curiously, Jefferson is the only character who has no last name. One can only wonder: Is there any significance to this lack of a last name? And further: Is there any significance in the choice of a name that is more commonly encountered as a last name? And are we supposed to make any connections between the material in this play and historical figures that bore that name as either a first or last name?
The Department of Picky-Picky suggests that you try to avoid sitting in the floor-level second row. The Justice Theater Project’s presentation of A Lesson Before Dying is a lesson that nobody should miss!
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 11th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=7621; and Oct. 2nd Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Lori D. R. Wiggins: http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/community/midtown-raleigh-news/article37327251.html.
The Justice Theater Project presents A LESSON BEFORE DYING at 3 p.m. Oct. 11, 8 p.m. Oct. 16 and 17, 3 p.m. Oct. 18, 8 p.m. Oct. 22 and 23, and 3 p.m. Oct. 24 in Clare Hall at the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi, 11401 Leesville Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27613.
TICKETS: $22 ($10 high school students and $17 college students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel), except $14 per ticket for groups of 10 or more.
BOX OFFICE: 919-264-7089, email@example.com, or http://www.etix.com/.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-264-7089 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
SHOW: http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/lesson-before-dying/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/1760804834146990/.
PRESENTER: http://thejusticetheaterproject.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Justice-Theater-Project/29290766458.
VENUE: http://stfrancisraleigh.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Catholic-Community-of-St-Francis-of-Assisi/172774212838785.
NOTE 1: All seats are $14 for the 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11th, matinee.
NOTE 2: There will be $10-per-student Daytime High School Performances at 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 12, 13, 15, and 20. (To make reservations, telephone 919-264-7089 or e-mail email@example.com.)
NOTE 3: At 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 13th, there will be a FREE A Lesson Before Dying book discussion led by Fr. Steve Kluge.
NOTE 4: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16th, performance. Visually impaired patrons and their drivers will be admitted for FREE. Reservations are required. Telephone 919-264-7089 to make them.
NOTE 5: At 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 17th, there will be a FREE preshow discussion on “Structural Racism,” led by N.C. State University professor Dr. Sheila Smith McKoy. Light refreshments will be served.
NOTE 6: There will be FREE childcare services for potty-trained children over age 3 during the 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18th, performance.
NOTE 7: There will be a $14-per-person Daytime Seniors Over 55 Performance at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 19th. Reservations are required. Telephone 919-264-7089 to make them.
NOTE 8: At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 22nd, there will be a preshow discussion with Trevor Thomson and JTP artistic director Deb Royals on “Catholic Social Teaching, the Death Penalty, and Moral Decisions.” Light refreshments will be served.
A Lesson Before Dying (1993 novel): http://knopfdoubleday.com/book/57454/a-lesson-before-dying/9780679455615/ (Knopf Doubleday) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Lesson_Before_Dying (Wikipedia).
Ernest J. Gaines (Oscar, LA-born novelist): http://ernestgaines.louisiana.edu/ (Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_J._Gaines (Wikipedia).
A Lesson Before Dying (2000 Off-Broadway play): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=2973 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.) and http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Broadway Database).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: http://www.steppenwolf.org/_pdf/studyguides/lesson_studyguide.pdf (Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago, IL).
Romulus Linney (Philadelphia, PA-born playwright, 1930-2011): http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Broadway Database), http://ibdb.com/Person/View/8467 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romulus_Linney_%28playwright%29 (Wikipedia).
Deb Royals (Raleigh, NC director and JTP’s artistic director): https://www.facebook.com/deb.royals (Facebook page).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.